CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — In their quest to become the first team to repeat as NFC South champions, the Carolina Panthers will lean heavily on healthy running back Jonathan Stewart.
Stewart has run for 437 yards on 78 carries — a 5.6-yard average — in the past four games, helping Carolina vault back into first place in the NFC South.
The Panthers (6-8-1) will play at Atlanta (6-9) on Sunday with the winner taking home the division title and securing a first-round home game in the playoffs.
"He's gone through an awful lot with his ankles and health-wise, so for him to be at this point in the season and feel healthy like he is is really good for us," coach Ron Rivera said.
That hasn't always been the case.
Stewart missed 17 of 32 games the previous two seasons while battling ankle and knee injuries. He finished both seasons on injured reserve.
Stewart came on to the NFL scene as a rookie in 2008, rushing for 836 yards and 10 touchdowns. He followed that by racking up 1,133 yards rushing and 10 more touchdowns the following season.
Stewart, who has spent most of his career behind DeAngelo Williams on the Panthers' depth chart, has never come close to matching those numbers since.
This season he has a team-high 760 yards and three touchdowns, but his production down the stretch has the Panthers excited about their chances on Sunday — and possibly beyond.
"When he's healthy he is as good as there is," tight end Greg Olsen said. "He can take a beating and he dishes it out pretty good. At the end of the game he's a guy the defense isn't really thrilled to tackle."
Stewart only carried seven times for 24 yards in a backup role in Carolina's 19-17 loss to Atlanta on Nov. 19. Williams had 10 carries for 41 yards.
Since then, he's run for 85 yards against Minnesota, 155 against New Orleans, 73 against Tampa Bay and 122 last Sunday against Cleveland. He also caught a fourth-quarter pass from Cam Newton for the go-ahead touchdown against the Browns, helping the Panthers win their third straight game and take control of their playoff destiny.
Stewart's rise is partially related to the offensive line finding stability the past month and getting an opportunity with Williams sidelined with a broken right hand.
Williams is back at practice wearing a cast on his hand, but Rivera is expected to stick with the hot hand in Stewart on Sunday.
"Stew(art) is hitting the holes, making the right reads and the offensive line is blocking their (butts) off too," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "He's a guy that has had opportunities during his career, but has had some ups and downs with injuries. Now he is getting his chance to shine and making the most of it."
The 5-foot-10, 235-pound Stewart can be a punishing rusher with a hard running style, low center of gravity and quick burst.
And he's quite capable of a big game.
His 206 yards rushing against the New York Giants in the 2009 regular-season finale stands as the second-highest single-game total in franchise history.
Despite missing three games earlier this season with a knee injury, he has 390 rushing yards after contract this season, which is 18th-most in the NFL, according to STATS.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said he's never seen the soft-spoken, piano-playing Stewart play better.
"He's quiet, but when you see that look in his eye, he has a fire," Shula said. "And when that gets lit, and it is lit right now, it is fun to be around him and watch him. He is running well and is tough to bring down."
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